Posts Tagged ‘The Myth of Return’

Did Barbados and Jamaica Really Appeal to Us to Take their Workers to Prevent a Political Crisis?

August 8, 2022

Here’s another unusual claim from Simon Webb of History Debunked about the origins of the first wave of Caribbean immigration here in the 1940s and 50s, if some of the great readers of this blog will indulge me talking about him once again. I know how he and his very right-wing views really annoy some people. This morning Webb put up a video repeating the claim once again that the Windrush migrants hadn’t been invited by the British government, but instead took advantage of the cheap cabins available on the Empire Windrush to come to Britain to seek work. He then moved from this claim to discuss the advertisements London Transport had placed in the Caribbean for men willing to work as bus drivers over here. Citing the Runnymede Commission and something they say on their website, to which he provides a link, Webb claimed that this had been done, not because Britain needed the Labour but for the benefit of the Barbadian and Jamaican authorities. At this period in the 1950s, there had been high unemployment and civil unrest in those colonies, and the British government had made the appeal for workers their to relieve the political pressure by taking the hotheads to Britain. He also stated that the West Indian nurses that came over here were intended simply to study, then go back to their own countries taking their skills with them.

I’m not an expert on immigration or immigration policy, and this occurred well before I was born. But history matters, even when some of the claims about it come from people like Simon Webb. I always understood that there was a labour shortage, and that some sort of appeal for commonwealth workers had been made. Though this wasn’t necessarily for Black workers. I therefore left this comment on the video:

‘I’ve seen several stories in the press about the appeal for West Indian workers to come to Britain. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent a decade or so ago claimed that the British government had put out such a call, but that five Labour MPs had joined the opposition in voting against it. Another version I’ve heard is that the British government had put out a call for commonwealth workers, but were expecting them to come from the White colonies like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. They weren’t expecting the mass influx of Black and Asian migrants. Is there any way to get to the bottom of these stories and see whether they’re truth or myth?’

Webb claims that the story that Caribbean immigrants were invited here is a myth created by Blacks a little while ago, and uncritically adopted by Whites because it made them feel ‘warm and fuzzy’. But from pieces like Alibhai-Brown’s in the press, it seems to me that some kind of appeal had been made. I suspect that you would have to read through a lot of books and documents looking for the truth of these claims. However, I do wonder if any of the readers or commenters here know anything about this issue and so may be able to correct or refute it.

Some of the comments to Webb’s video are interesting as personal reminiscences of meeting Caribbean immigrants and hearing from them why they came here, as well as seeing films in the Caribbean advertising for workers.

53supermojo said:

‘n 1964/5 I went to Football Matches and stood generally in the same place and by same people at every game. Amongst them were a group of Bus Drivers and Conductors from Barbados. Sometimes they came to the Match in their work Clothing , having worked the Morning Shift. They were all friendly and well mannered. They told my older Cousin and his Workmates, that they came here because they were unemployed , they saw advert in local newspaper for people to come and work here. So someone must have known about that in Home Office ? They said they had been here for 3 to 4 years at time and moved from London Area up to West Midlands , they lived in ‘ Digs ‘ and had Girlfriends. If they are still here , they would be in their late 80s or 90s now !’

Gary Dennis commented

‘My parents and many of her friends and associates from Jamaica recalled seeing what that called ‘propaganda’ films encouraging them to come to Britain. It painted a romantic and quant image of Britain, which did exists but not for most people. If you know any elderly Caribbean people ask them about these films and adverts. When Jamaicans came they actually had not intent of staying beyond five year, they wanted to make a bit of money then go back. Life was not as they expected and most were unable to leave and therefore settled in and made the best of it. My suspicion was that my parents generation had been ‘invited’ – or more perhaps more accurately ‘an opening made’ – to undercut the cost of local labour. I believe this was the origin of racial tension but I have no evidence. I remember reading an article in Lobster Magazine where Harold MacMillan was heard to have said in conversation that he didn’t expect so many to come. I began to question the need for immigrants from the Caribbean when I began to take an interest in basic economics and started to question the premise that there was not enough labour available after the second world war. Obviously many people died but I understand that women had already taken up much of the slack in the workforce. I don’t claim to know the truth but there are some of us descendants of immigrants that also question the official narratives about immigration. We need to remember that some of these countries were British territories and these policies and actions would have been arrangements between Parliament and the Governor Generals of the countries and I suspect that the trigger for the movement of immigrants originates from these parties with Barbados only having got it’s independence in 1966 and Jamaica in 1962; well after Windrush. Jamaica had turned violent because of militant unionism during the 1930s and 40s escalating significantly in the 60s so I suspect the worry expressed by the governments was less to do with the welfare of the locals but the stability of the territory. The European Coal Community also took advantage of massive movements of cheap labour after the second world war. Is cheap labour the common theme here?’

I’ve heard that many migrants from what is now Pakistan and India also originally came here to work for a very limited time before going back to their home countries. It was chain migration, in which one set of migrants would move in after the last set had returned. According to this view, the great surge in Black and Asian immigration came after Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and the imposition of limits on immigration by Ted Heath, as there was a rush of people to come to this country before the gates were closed. So many migrants from south Asia came here with the intention of making enough money to go back to Pakistan or India again that one ethnographic study of the British Asian community I’ve come across was called The Myth of Return.

As for women taking on male jobs during the War, I understood that there was the expectation that after the War women would return to their domestic role, just as they did after World War II, and that this is largely what happened until the rise of second wave feminism in the 1960s.

Also interesting is this comment from david c:

‘Back in the 60’s, I worked at a well known clothing company, who were praised for their charitable efforts to give employment, to about 300 people from Mauritius, with an agreement from their government, so they could work in the basement of the shop, making clothes. Nobody mentioned that they were being paid about 50% less than the the rest of us.’

This looks like a nasty bit of exploitation under the cover of humanitarianism, which makes you wonder what else was going on.